Nowadays, people tend to give their children names because either they have a family member who bears that name or else simply because they like the sound of the name. In the culture of the Bible, we do see that the practice was sometimes made of naming children after family members (e.g., Luke 1:59-61), but more often it seems that children were given a name that would be descriptive of them, or would reflect the circumstances surrounding their birth (e.g., Genesis 25:25-26). In other words, names meant something. You could actually learn something about a person just by knowing their name.
We see at times in Scripture where God will change the name of an individual to show what He has done in that person’s life. Jacob (literally, he supplants or heel-catcher) is named by his parents because he is born holding onto his twin brother’s heel. Later, God will call him Israel (literally, God prevails) because he spent a night wrestling with God (unsuccessfully, we might add). As God confirms and clarifies His covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17, He will give new names both to Abraham (heretofore called Abram) and to Sarah (Sarai before now). Why does God do so?
Abraham (Father of a multitude) is called so because God will bring from him a multitude of descendants. Sarah (Princess or Queen) is identified as such because these descendants will come through her. There is something very striking in this instance of God renaming them, however, and that is their situation at the time that God does it. Lest we forget the context, may we imagine for a moment a 99 year old man whose only child is a young man born to him by a bond-servant, telling those around him that his name is now Father of a multitude. Not only so, but this man declares that his 90 year old wife who is without a child of her own is now to be known as Queen, for she will be the mother of this great multitude. What was the reaction from those in his household? What did Hagar and Ishmael think of this? We can only imagine the sneering and ridicule that went on behind the backs of Sarah and Abraham because every time their names were spoken, it was a sharp reminder of the ledge of faith that they had stepped out onto.
“(As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were.” (Romans 4:17)
But we learn in this encounter between God and Abraham that, from God’s perspective, all things are past tense. God tells Abraham that He will make him a father of nations, but from where God is standing, it’s a “done deal.” Abraham would not appear to have earned his name until long after he is dead and gone, but God renames him at this time because what the Lord has said shall most surely come to pass. Abraham and Sarah exhibited their faith by bearing these new names even when it must have appeared to others that such titles were nothing more than an ironic joke. They may have tried to bring about the promise of children through their own efforts before, but now they would simply believe that God was able to bring it to pass in His own time and in His own way. God Almighty had declared that they were the parents of a multitude of descendants, and that was all that mattered.